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New York's juvenile justice system is bulging, so overcrowded that teen-age robbers, drug dealers and other criminals are released after serving a fraction of their punishment -- returning to the streets where they sometimes commit new crimes.

One Monroe County teen-ager sent to a secure center for up to a year was out within five months and charged with first-degree rape.

Another youth sentenced in Monroe County for up to 18 months in a state juvenile center was released in eight months. He was arrested a short time later and charged with armed robbery.

"You hear a lot about hardened criminals being set free because the state has too few prison cells to keep them," Monroe County Family Court Judge Anthony J. Sciolino said. "The same thing is happening with teen-age delinquents who are supposed to be kept in secure facilities by the state Division for Youth."

Complaints about the state's juvenile justice program are well known in Buffalo, where non-secure group homes are so loosely run that the young residents routinely escape to commit new crimes. And a more secure center on Best Street was criticized several years ago for retaining convicted felons as guards.

Although Buffalo's facilities have a reputation for being the worst in the state, this isn't the only city where the state Division for Youth is under attack. Some of the problems occurring in Buffalo reflect larger troubles within the state Division for Youth -- troubles that are worsening as the system exceeds capacity.

"The system is failing miserably," said Dr. Roger B. McNally, a criminal justice professor with the state University of New York at Brockport. "These kids have been sold a short bill of goods. The public is not being protected, and the youth are not being rehabilitated."

Based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former Division for Youth officials, youth directors in other states, youth advocates, and academics, The Buffalo News found:

Although judges sentence juvenile delinquents for up to 12 or 18 months under state supervision, the teen-agers generally are staying only six or seven months under agency supervision. Last year, the average stay was four months.

Some of the state's most dangerous teen-age criminals, who are treated as adults and sent to the Division for Youth's secure centers, are exempt from the early-release policy. But in recent years, the courts have been treating fewer youths as adults, so some of the most violent teen-agers are being sent to the division's mid-secure centers.

While mid-security centers are overcrowded, there have been fewer youths involved in minor offenses, prompting the state to close some of its non-secure group homes.

Youngsters who go through New York's juvenile justice system are not being rehabilitated. Studies found 77 percent of the teen-agers released from the state's facilities are arrested again, and 53 percent are jailed again.

The division mixes young criminals -- drug dealers and violent felons -- with youngsters who are under the state's care because of family discipline problems. This practice is outlawed in several other states.

Once the youths are released from the state's care, they receive little attention from the state. The average caseload of an after-care worker in upstate New York is 30 youths; in New York City it's 54.

Residents of the state's non-secure group homes routinely run away and commit crimes, beat up staff and each other.

The state Division for Youth has custody of about 2,000 of New York's most troubled youths. About 200 are youngsters whose parents can't control them and are sent to community group homes by Family Court. These facilities are located in cities, and most of the teen-agers are allowed freedom of movement to attend school or work in odd jobs.

Another 250 were convicted through the adult courts of crimes including murder and rape, and are sent to the Division for Youth's secure centers. In these facilities, the teens are locked up and under guard, similar to a prison.

The majority under the state's care are teen-age robbers, drug dealers and violent felons sent from Family Court to one of the division's 21 mid-level security centers. In these facilities, the youths are under close observation, usually in centers located in isolated, rural settings.

Peter K. Collazo is familiar with the state system. He worked in it for two years before losing his job. The state says Collazo had a poor work record and couldn't get along with his co-workers or the youths in his care.

Collazo says he lost his job after complaining that girls at the Auburn Residential Center in Cayuga County were being abused. While there in 1989, Collazo said, he saw another youth aide make a girl sit on a hard stool in a corner for 13 days. The girl was allowed only to go to school, to the bathroom, and to bed, he said.

Before going to the Auburn Center, Collazo worked at the Rochester group homes. There, Collazo said, he saw an administrator punish a youth by making him eat a cigarette; youths routinely run away, sometimes mugging people on the streets or breaking into homes.

"The kids realize if they go AWOL, nothing happens to them," Collazo said.

Michael P. Gilley of Yates County is also familiar with the state program.

He was sentenced to 18 months in the state's custody after being arrested two years ago, at age 14, for stealing a gun from a truck and firing the weapon, according to his father, Patrick Quilen. After spending time at several other state Division for Youth facilities, Michael was sent to a Binghamton group home last year, Quilen said.

During his stay there, Michael ran away at least 20 times, received little education. One staff worker choked him and broke the teen-ager's arm, according to Quilen.

"His arm was just ripped off," the youth's father said. "It's been a nightmare."

The state denied that a youth worker attacked Gilley. Instead, the state says, Michael pushed the youth worker, then fell and accidentally broke his own arm, Quilen said.

State Division for Youth officials defend their system and note the seriousness of crime among youths. More youngsters have been placed under the the state's care during the last two years, and these teen-agers are more violent than ever before, said Leonard G. Dunston, director of the Division for Youth.

Other state officials note that arrests of juveniles for violent crimes jumped by 39 percent between 1987 and 1989, and continued increasing in 1990.

Additionally, administrators are addressing shortcomings, these officials say.

New directors have been named in recent months in Rochester and Binghamton to address problems at those group homes, said Gwen Jones, an assistant deputy director.

The Division for Youth also hopes to provide better training for its staff, said Charles DeVane, the division's deputy director.

But the biggest problems that the division faces stem from overcrowding, according to division officials.

The state's mid-level secure centers have 1,407 beds. They now have 1,432 youngsters squeezed in.

Three years ago, the state had just 1,002 beds in its mid-level secure centers. Since then some of its unused beds in high-security centers were converted. In addition, the division opened new wings in existing mid-level secure institutions, to bring the number above 1,400.

The overcrowding is evident at the Oatka Residential Center, about 25 miles southwest of Rochester.

Oatka had 40 youths and 40 beds until last year. That's when another 20 teen-agers were sent to the facility.

The extra 20 sleep in one large room. There isn't money available to build separate rooms, DeVane said.

But even with the 20 extra beds, there's not enough room.

Facility director Morris Bickwell and his staff have developed a 12-month program to help the troubled teen-agers in their care. But because of the bed shortage, the teen-agers only stay at Oatka for six months. That means they are released before reaping the benefits of the program.

How did the situation develop?

Some youth advocates and critics within the Division for Youth privately blame a lack of leadership and imagination. They charge that Division Director Leonard G. Dunston hasn't been a strong enough advocate for the state's troubled youngsters.

Dunston denies that. He and other Division for Youth officials in Albany said the problem crept up on them as crack cocaine and automatic weapons began to flourish on the streets of the state's cities.

The Division for Youth didn't have the beds in its mid-security centers to accommodate the influx.

Meanwhile, the division plans to build a new 150-bed mid-level security center, but that isn't expected to open until 1992 and isn't expected to meet the agency's projected needs.

Division officials are also looking into alternative programs for some of the non-violent youths in their custody, but they don't have the money for those programs.

As far as the people running the state's facilities are concerned, division officials must make more beds available or find alternative programs.

"Most kids are leaving prematurely," said Carl W. Jutzin, director of Industry School, a mid-secure center about 20 miles outside of Rochester. "We do the best we can."

MONDAY: New York's costly juvenile justice system.

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